GILBERT, AZ -Seven years running, the No. 1 Dodge dealer in new-car sales has done so by also leading the pack in repair orders and employees.

It is Earnhardt's Gilbert Dodge in this southeast suburb of Phoenix, which prides itself on employee loyalty and customer satisfaction in the fast-growing Valley of the Sun.

Earnhardt Dodge sold 6,698 new Dodge cars and trucks last year to maintain its lead position, and as its 526 employees and their spouses were told at a victory banquet in mid-February at the glitzy Arizona Biltmore Hotel:

"We raised our total new and used sales for the past seven years to 10,283, total ROs to 403,000 and our total gross revenues to $1.75 billion. No one else can make that statement."

As the 12 "employees of the month" in 1999 were presented during the program, founder Tex Earnhardt, 69, a proud Southwesterner who wears cowboy boots, jeans and a Stetson hat, accepted congratulations amid his family, including his 90-year-old mother, sons and a grandson.

"Thinking big and having employees who think big sure worked for me," Mr. Earnhardt says in his office at Earnhardt Ford Sales Co., Tempe, AZ, a companion store also ranked on the Ward's Dealer Business 500.

"I dropped out of high school in the 10th grade and came to Phoenix in 1951 to work in a gas station over in Chandler. They gave me a Ford franchise out there - probably the smallest in the world. You had to think bigger because there was no other way to think.

"Art Schaier, who runs the Dodge store, thinks just as big and is the smartest auto man I know. What Art has done is remarkable."

Co-owner Mr. Schaier, 58, who came to Phoenix in 1955 and joined Earnhardt in 1979, serves as corporate general manager.

His office is in the Dodge dealership with a 36-acre lot crammed with inventory; large detail, body, prepping and service shops; a building where twice-weekly wholesale auctions are held; a used-unit building, and finally a central showroom structure containing separate prime and secondary F&I departments.

An in-house attorney and a title office that processes an average of 4,000 titles a month also are unique.

It sounds huge, and is. Says Mr. Schaier, "To accomplish our growth and improvement targets we hold sales meetings at 7:45 a.m. every work day. Our salesmen's compensation goes to double minimum commissions often and they are the best-paid in Phoenix.

"Our ad budget runs to $135,000 a month, including 30-minute infomercials starring Tex and his son Hal riding their ranches with cattle and prize bulls (a bull's head is the Earnhardt logo).

"We spend to get and have what I believe is the largest subprime F&I department of any dealer, which brings in up to 25% of our business.

"A lot of dealers have shied away from subprime, but it is growing and keeping many of our shoppers on wheels, which is what matters."

The Earnhardt F&I database reaches about 50 providers, says Mr. Schaier, including DaimlerChrysler Financial, Ford Credit and its subprime subsidiaries Fairlane and Triad, Phoenix-based Bank One, GE Capital and Wells Fargo.

A 17-person business development center located at the Ford store in Tempe makes about 18,000 phone calls to customers and prospects a month. Phone-staffers get a $25 spiff if an appointment is made, $50 if a sale results.

Far from waving off the Internet, as have many old-line dealers, Earnhardt has developed what Mr. Schaier calls the most sophisticated website in Arizona.

He explains, "Site visitors can configure a vehicle, make a $500 refundable deposit with a financing application and get the unit delivered to their home or office if they prefer. runs to 250 pages and is directed by two fulltime designers.

"I'd rather they come to the dealership, so they can see our state-of-the-art service department and meet the managers. But Hal Earnhardt (Tex's 44-year-old son and overseer of the Ford store in Tempe) believes the Internet is going to be a major sourcing tool, especially as we add stores and franchises, and I think dealers who fear it are going to be sorry."

Earnhardt has added Hyundai and Kia at the Dodge store to cover the entry-level market and is building a second Ford location in the western part of the Valley. Mazda is coming to the flagship Ford point and a Chrysler-Plymouth-Jeep dealership nearby has added Suzuki.

Says Mr. Earnhardt, "You need to treat customers like one treats your mother or your horse."